Michelangelo or Leonardo?

In March this year I posted an item stating that Michelangelo’s portrayal of God in The Creation of Adam section of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, represented Leonardo da Vinci.

More recently there was much press coverage given to research by the scholar and author Adriano Marinazzo who hypothesised that Michelangelo painted himself as God.

Marinazzo based his judgement primarily on a sketch drawn alongside a sonnet Michelangelo had written to a friend. In an interview with Julie Tucker of the Muscarelle Museum of Art on May 12, this year, Marinazzo explained: 

“In my study, I pointed out the intriguing resemblance between Michelangelo’s self-portrait silhouette and the artist’s depiction of God in “The Creation of Adam.” In Michelangelo’s self-portrait, his right arm is extended toward the ceiling’s surface to give life to the stories of the book of Genesis. The artist holds a brush that approaches the vault’s surface but does not touch it. This gesture recalls Michelangelo’s painting of God’s index, who gives life to Adam without touching him. Plus, in his self-portrait, Michelangelo represented himself with his legs crossed; this is a curious pose for somebody who is painting on a scaffolding. But Michelangelo also painted God with his legs crossed while giving life to Adam. I also pointed out that in his self-portrait, Michelangelo idealises himself. The features of his face, viewed in profile, are gentle and harmonious. But in real life, Michelangelo had rough features, characterised by a flattened nose. I concluded by pointing out that Michelangelo goes towards the surface he is painting, as God goes towards Adam. The profile of the artist is flawless, like that of God.”

Marinazzo added in another report (New York Post) that it was when he turned the sketch on its side he experienced an “epiphany” and “discovered the self-portrait looked almost identical to the God that is seen on the ceiling of the chapel.”

Creation of Adam, Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel,

Michelangelo’s sketch is not unfamiliar to me. In an earlier post I compared it to one of the figures in Botticelli’s Primavera painting, presented at surface level as the man generally assumed to represent the mythological Roman god Mercury. Botticelli also applied other identities to the figure, another being the painter Filippino Lippi, one of several Florentine artists commissioned earlier to paint the walls of the Sistine Chapel. In fact, Botticelli had a field day portraying extended arms in the Primavera painting. All the figures are depicted with an arm or arms outstretched.

Primavera, Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi, Florence
Baptism of Christ, Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci, Uffizi, Florence

But the link doesn’t stop there. Michelangelo’s sketch, transformed into the figure of God in the Sistine Chapel, can be sourced back to a much earlier painting attributed to Andrea del Verrocchio in which Leonardo da Vinci is said to have contributed some of the finer detail. Notice in this painting the figure of John the Baptist with his extended right hand stretched upwards.

Another work that can be recognised as influencing Botticelli’s stretching figure in Primavera is Leonardo’s painting of The Annunciation. Leonardo is often criticised for his portrayal of the Virgin Mary with an extra-long right arm, but this was intentional. Leonardo was making a point about the figure of John the Baptist in Verrocchio’s painting as well as referring to a water feature in The Annunciation. And so in Primavera, Botticelli continued stressing the same point with his figure of Mercury, his arm extended and pointing to a water feature, just as the figure of John the Baptist, with his arm outstretched baptising Jesus with water.

The Annunciation, Leonardo da Vinci, Uffizi, Florence

Botticelli continued the outstretched arm reference in his Birth of Venus with the Hora of Spring offering cover for the naked Venus.

Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi, Florence

So in actuality, Michelangelo brought the narrative full circle and back to Leonardo to whom his pointing man relates to. Adriano Marinazzo accessed a page in the story but not the complete narrative. Decades after Michelangelo completed painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, another artist, Giorgio Vasari, provided more clues about the man with the extended arm in his painting of the Battle of Marciano on one of the long walls in the Palazzo Vecchio’s Hall of Five Hundred. The fresco covers an earlier battle scene, The Battle of Anghiari painted by Leonardo da Vinci in which he depicted another version of a man with an extended arm.

Battle of Marciano, Giorgio Vasari, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

There is another feature attached to the narrative of the man with the extended arm, and that is a wing. The feature appears prominently in  two places in the Baptism of Christ. It also explains why the Archangel Gabriel was given an extended wing in The Annunciation; why Mercury’s left hand-on-hip is wing-shaped; why Michelangelo’s loose sketch shows his left hand on hip; and finally, why God’s left arm is also shaped as a wing covering the woman he created, which begs the question: Who was this particular woman?

Creation of Adam detail, Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel
Detail from Virgin of the Rocks, Leonardo da Vinci, Louvre, Paris

Botticelli is the child that bears the left hand of God on his right shoulder. Observe the shape of the hand. It is the same as the right hand of Mary which bears down on the shoulder of the Infant John the Baptist in Leonardo’s painting of the Virgin of the Rocks (Louvre version).

Leonardo continued the narrative even in his painting of The Last Supper. There are several references to wings and long arms, and Sandro Botticelli and Domenico Ghirlandaio, who both figured in Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ, are depicted at at the table.

The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci, Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan

A patron saint of false accusations

In my last note on The Annunciation by Leonardo da Vinci, I touched on one of the themes in the painting being pilgrimage, and mentioned two major destinations for pilgrims in Leonardo’s time, Rome and Mecca.

The Annunciation by Leonardo da Vinci, Uffizi, Florence

Since then I’ve discovered another connection in the painting to add to the theme of pilgrimage.

It’s taken me a few days to try and fathom why Leonardo included this strand, and there is more than one answer as to why he made several references to a particular saint known as St Roch, or St Rocco as he is known in Italy.

Saint Rocco, The Cloisters Collection, Met Museum,

St Rocco was a 14th century saint of noble birth, born in Montpellier, France. By the time he had reached the age of 20, both his parents had died. He then became a Third Order Franciscan and set out as a pilgrim on a journey to Rome. He arrived in Italy during a plague epidemic and spent most of his life travelling through the country preserving people suffering with the pestilence, simply by making the Sign of the Cross over them and on their foreheads.

He contracted the disease himself but was miraculously cured. On his return to Montpellier he was falsely accused of being a spy, arrested by his own uncle and thrown into prison where he spent the remaining five years of his life. In 1485 his body was eventually carried to Venice and is preserved within the high altar of the Church of St Rocco.

St Rocco is a saint invoked against epidemics, and more recently during the worldwide spread of Covid. He is also the patron saint of dogs, pilgrims and, not surprisingly, falsely accused people. It is this latter patronage that Leonardo may have had in mind for referencing St Rocco in his painting, which he produced shortly after he was anonymously accused of sodomy in 1476 and called before the Florentine court of justice for his perceived crime. 

So in this painting of The Annunciation we have Leonardo making his personal Annunciation that he was falsely accused, and even outing the two men responsible for the anonymous declaration made to the authorities, Domenico Ghirlandaio aided by Sandro Botticelli.

More on the references made to St Rocco in The Annunciation painting at another time.

A call to pilgrimage

The Annunciation was one of Leonardo da Vinci’s first paintings. It is generally dated between 1472 and 1476. My preference is for the latter end of the range, 1476, because Leonardo embedded references to the charge of sodomy that was made against him that same year. 

The Annunciation (1476) by Leonardo da Vinci, Uffizi, Florence

References to the year of 1475 – declared as a Holy Year by Pope Sixtus IV – are also embedded in the painting. Holy years are also known as Jubilee years.

The Jubilee Year, according to Christianity, is a time of joy, the year of remission or universal pardon. The celebration of the Jubilee Year is quoted in several verses of the bible like in Leviticus 25:10 which says: ‘and shalt proclaim remission to all the inhabitants of thy land: for it is the year of jubilee.’ The Jubilee Year was celebrated every fifty years and during this year, families were expected to find their absent family members, the Hebrew slaves were to be set free, debts were to be settled and illegally owned land had to be returned to its owners.

“According to Roman Catholic Church’s history, the first Jubilee Year in the Roman Catholic Church was instituted by Pope Boniface VIII in 1300. During the celebration of the first Jubilee Year, Pope Boniface VIII passed his message of the need for people to confess their sins by fulfilling certain conditions. The first condition was to be repentant and confess their sins, and the second condition was to visit either St Peter or St Paul in Rome and pass through the “Holy Doors”, within the specified time of the celebration.”

That one of the conditions of the Jubilee was for people to travel to Rome would be considered a pilgrimage, which is one of the themes to be found in the painting. Pointers to locations in Rome in The Annunciation painting indicate that Leonardo da Vinci was one of thousands who made a pilgrimage to Rome during the Jubilee year of 1475. (source: vatican.com)

Neither would he have been the only painter from Florence to have made the journey to the Eternal City. Domenico Ghirlandaio certainly did. He was employed that year by Pope Sixtus IV to ‘decorate’ the newly built Vatican Library. Vatican sources also mention other painters being employed to paint and decorate Rome in 1475, including Sandro Botticelli and Andrea del Verrochio, but there is no record of Leonardo among the Florentine group.

 “The Annunciation to Mary” from the Chronology of Ancient Nations (1307) by Al-Biruni.

I pointed out in a previous post that The Annunciation painting also contains several pointers to Islam. So it’s not surprising to discover Leonardo embedded references to the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca and the Kaaba, the “House of Allah”, where Muslims “cleanse their souls of all worldly sin”. 

More on this in a future post.

Leonardo’s monumental cliffs

According to the historian Silvano Vinceti, another detail in the Mona Lisa painting that helped identify the Romito di Laterina bridge was the rock formation behind the sitter’s right shoulder. Vinceti described them as clay pinnacles located ten miles away from the bridge, as presented in the photograph below.

Most likely they are the monumental rocks known as the balze (crags) of Valdarno, “created from sand, clay and gravel, and shaped by the wind and rain in a place where millions of years ago, there was a huge lake…”

Vinceti was not the first to associate these crags on the shoulder of Mona Lisa with those of Valdarno, located between Florence and Arezzo. Other researchers have pointed out the similarity. However, what no-one has yet discovered is that Leonardo embedded in his depiction of the crags a likeness to one of his sketchbook drawings from 1478, the head captioned: ‘Fioravante di Domenico… in Florence is my most cherished companion, as though he were my…’” I presented details about this last month at this link.

To best visualise the feature and make a comparison to the drawing, the painting needs to be rotated 90 degrees to the left. When the painting is rotated 90 degrees to the right then another feature appears, the head of a lion, and representing Leonardo, the other head in the sketch. 

detail from the Mona Lisa painting showing the profile of a lion’s head
The heads of ‘Domenico and Leonardo da Vinci’… resurface and face each other again as ‘Domenico and the Lion’s Head’ in Leonardo’s painting of the Mona Lisa.
detail from the Mona Lisa painting – a pointer to the Archangel Uriel?

A third figure is also embedded in the crags, its head reminiscent of the Archangel Uriel’s turned head in Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks (pictured right), perhaps suggesting the cavernous backdrop in this earlier painting was also inspired by the baize of Valdarno.

Another feature in the Mona Lisa painting is the winding path from the lion’s head. This too is possibly a pointer to one of Leonardo’s first paintings, the unfinished portrayal of Jerome in the Desert which also features a rocky backdrop, and a lion with a winding tail.

But why would Leonardo want to reference in the Mona Lisa painting an earlier drawing of the head of a man made around 1478? And could the faceless ‘Uriel’ and the ‘Mona Lisa’ be connected in some way, or be even the same person?

St Jerome in the Desert, Leonardo da Vinci, Uffizi, Florence

This is what Leonardo wrote in his notebook on the subject of pareidolia: 

A Way of Development and Arousing the Mind to Various Inventions:
“I cannot forbear to mention among these precepts a new device for study which, although it may seem but trivial and almost ludicrous, is nevertheless extremely useful in arousing the mind to various inventions. And this is, when you look at a wall spotted with stains, or with a mixture of stones, if you have to devise some scene, you may discover a resemblance to various landscapes, beautified with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys and hills in varied arrangement; or again you may see battles and figures in action; or strange faces and costumes, and an endless variety of objects, which you could reduce to complete and well drawn forms. And these appear on such walls confusedly, like the sound of bells in whose jangle you may find any name or word you choose to imagine.”


Leonardo the bridge builder

This week there was news that an Italian historian had identified the bridge which appears in Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Silvano Vinceti announced at a press conference in Rome that he has no doubt it was the Romito di Laterina bridge in the province of Arezzo and not two other candidates previously considered. The Good News Network reported:

“Using drone photographs and historical orecords of da Vinci’s whereabouts, including those owned by the De Medici family, historian Silvano Vinceti says he feels very sure that the bridge over Mona Lisa’s left shoulder is the Romito di Laterina bridge.

“The most telling clue was the number of arches. Three candidates for the bridge depicted in the Mona Lisa all have different numbers of arches. The Ponte Buriano near Laterina has six arches, while the Ponte Gobbo, in the town of Bobbio near Piacenza, has more than six.

“The bridge in the Mona Lisa, however, has four. Using drone photographs and by measuring the distance between the two banks of the river in Laterina, as well as the size of the single arch that remains from the historic bridge, Vinceti came to a mathematical conclusion that the Romito di Laterina surely had four arches.”

Four remaining arches of a bridge can be seen in Leonardo’s painting of The Annunciation.

Notice the boat passing under the bridge span in Leonardo’s sketch.

Leonardo da Vinci once submitted a design to Sultan Bayezid II, ruler of the Ottoman Empire, for a bridge to span across the Golden Horn. It wasn’t accepted. He also sketched drawings for a self-supporting style of bridge, constructed with interlocking logs. 

Botticelli’s Primavera painting references Leonardo’s bridge designs with the interlocking fingers of the Three Graces and the arched arms of of the outside Graces forming the shape of a keystone. I made mention to the group’s connection to Istanbul and the Golden Horn in another post at this link

The Three Graces from Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera, Uffizi, Florence